An archivist and educator friend of mine was sitting in a virtual workshop with Archive Liberia’s Bilphena Yahwon when they shared Yahwon’s prompt with me: what is the function of memory for Black people of the diaspora?
The text compelled my response — I felt I had been wondering the same thing.
At the time, I had been thinking of my grandfather, Moses, whose battle with Alzheimer’s had ended almost exactly five years prior. I thought of the relief — and sorrow — my dad felt at the ending of his own father’s pain. I then thought about the many rings decorating the inside of a tree, evidence of the old bark. The rings preserved the memories of the tree – every summer that scorched, winter that froze, and nesting tenant brought on by spring was written in the shape and texture of the ring.
The tree rings felt connected to my grandpa’s passing, this idea that memory is stored for a biological function. Memory serves an evolutionary purpose for us all. It’s a method of holding vital information for an organism. Memory tells the body - here is where you find water, if you eat this you will suffer greatly, we don’t like this other lifeform because they put us at risk. The body does, after all, keep the score.
It is as true for humans as it is for non-sentient organisms, that if you were to attack the site where memories are stored, the entire life form would be destroyed. You can’t remove the rings without killing the tree.
This is perhaps the call that all memory workers seek to answer. Despite having different approaches, memory workers document and preserve historical materials to withstand the erosion of time, moisture and movement. Within institutions, archivists specialize in the science and theory of preserving different material — photographs, film, literature, buildings, oral histories, painting and digital media amongst many others. Using grassroots methods, community archivists work directly with communities to preserve their histories.
In Mali, Senegal and Gambia, griots have long been experts in preserving oral traditions, histories and performances to last for centuries. While shaping the media, photographers and journalists document specific moments to develop deep personal archives. If you keep a diary or journal that’s a memory work practice too!
These archives offer critical insight into our interior lives as Black people, and their preservation allows us to teach our descendants how we survive, where to find joy, and the importance of being connected to one another. Black archives are our gift to the future.
Black archives are our gift to the future.— MacKenzie River Foy
As I sat with my thoughts, I brought Yahwon’s question to three other Black women memory working their way through time.
“Memory is important because it’s a testimony.”
Andrea Walls is the founding archivist of Philadelphia’s Museum of Black Joy. Her photo archive of Philadelphia streets speaks to our need to self-validate as Black women — especially in a nation whose dominant cultural memory distorts and renders us invisible. Her work expands notions of kinship in Black communities, depicting how sisterhood, familial and non-familial, allows Black femmes across the gender spectrum to feel seen, and lead meaningful change in their communities.
“These policy makers want to come in and make decisions about your neighborhood, your schools, but they haven’t listened to one thing that you said about who you are and what happened to you…But your sister knows that. Those sisters who remember what you told them when nobody else believed you.”
Walls describes her archive as experimental and independent compared to the archives at major universities and libraries. She voiced a common concern amongst Black and Indigenous researchers — that these elite spaces are often rooted in a hierarchy of truth legitimized by European standards of preservation and research. In reality, many truths co-exist, as do many non-European approaches to preservation and research. Black memory workers like Walls use various historical preservation and community organizing tactics to develop their archives — protected sites of Black joy, resilience and resistance.
Black memory workers like Walls use various historical preservation and community organizing tactics to develop their archives — protected sites of Black joy, resilience and resistance.— MacKenzie River Foy
“I find that most of us don’t agree on what the truth is…my experiment is what if we speak joy to power? If we refuse to be…mediating the truth. What if we stand in the common ground of joy and move from there?”
“Archival work is steeped into our culture.”
If you follow @blackwomenwritersarchive on Instagram, you may already know keondra freemyn, author and founding archivist of the Black Women Writers Project.
“I learned what an archivist was primarily through looking at my own family members, because I’m a strong believer that memory workers in general come in all forms, not just the ones who go and get the masters’ degrees at these universities. I have a pretty early memory of the history keepers in my family and them telling us about the family tree and having photographs of great, great, great grandparents and so forth to share at the family reunion. So, whenever I think about archivists, that’s like where my mind goes first.”
Working out of her office in the University of Maryland Hornbake Library, keondra has collected a vast repository of archives holding the materials of Black women and gender expansive writers across the country. While her project is mostly concerned with helping folks discover these smaller and less known archives, she recently began sharing some of the digital materials she’s encountered on Instagram. Her carefully curated page has garnered an audience of over 17,000 people.
“I think the function of memory is, in many ways, survival,” says freemyn. She considers the archive a place of deep wonder and exploration, where Black people can understand and believe in our own ability to thrive “against all odds, not just race…Black and queer, Black and disabled. A lot of these stories can get lost…There’s so many structures that work to keep us from being fully ourselves.”
It is impossible to talk about Black joy in the archive without noting how abundantly our struggle has been documented. Tucked between tall shadows of war and violence in the latter half of the 20th century, freemyn sometimes finds it difficult to excavate the joy in Black archives.
“Finding the joy for me is usually finding examples of people’s relationship to each other…the ways the writers I study have been in community with each other. You can find letters that they send to each other saying, ‘keep going, I loved your latest work.’ Also, ‘here’s some critique, but you better put [this] out. You know I can’t wait to see it out.’”
“Memory has saved our lives and continues to save our lives.”
Zakiya Collier is an independent archivist and memory worker who formerly worked at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a Digital Archivist. In addition to consulting on archival projects, she facilitates a monthly virtual meet up for hundreds of Black Memory Workers seeking support and connection across the country. It makes her day, week and life to plant seeds of community and watch the connections bloom.
Collier propagates the idea that memory is a tool for survival and self-validation, especially for descendants of transatlantic slavery whose histories may be undocumented.
“For the first couple of centuries that we were here, we were deprived of access to the standard form of documentation [in the United States]. We had to rely on oral transmission…to be able to remember things and share it, or sing it in a song…” At a time when it was not permitted for us to file deeds with local government offices, for a lot of Black and Indigenous communities, oral transmission of information was legitimate enough to transfer property.
This suggests that memory has acted as a tool not only for transferring information about who we are and how we survive, but even for transferring wealth. Perhaps the evidence that Black cultural materials, both tangible and intangible, have value means that memory itself is wealth. Today Black archival materials are sold and bought on auction by museums, galleries and media production companies. Tragically, Black archival materials can end up being sold without any profit returning to the family or community of origin.
Perhaps the evidence that Black cultural materials, both tangible and intangible, have value means that memory itself is wealth.— MacKenzie River Foy
“[I am] thinking about our elders and making sure they are aware the things they hold are valuable and the memories that they hold [are too]...sometimes having that conversation is difficult when you have to talk about loss and property. Especially in a community where ownership can be really contested, or we don’t own a lot.” Collier says it’s her priority to make sure folks have the tools to have these difficult conversations so that Black archival materials aren’t sold to a museum and put behind a paywall where families can no longer access them.
I thought again of trees — the concentric rings at their heart that mark the passing years. I thought of wide oak trees in South Carolina, too big to wrap your arms around. I thought of the baobab trees in West Africa, stout and proud. And again, I thought about how you can’t remove the rings without killing the tree. Without preserving our collective memory, we cannot continue to exist on a cultural level. Memory binds us together and shows us who we are, so that we can persist in our way of life. We have nothing without memory.
We must also use our memory to evolve where necessary. There are some things that memory teaches us to release. Resentment, guilt, sorrow – Walls reminded me that holding onto these will not serve us, though it is important to remain aware of historical context. “When I think of what I want for my niece, my nephew, great nephews…I want them to move into the future with lightness […] I want them to let go. Every generation we should be letting go of weariness.”
Things to remember, things to let go
Eventually, I sent an answer back to my friend regarding Yahwon’s question: memory connects us to life. It connects us to our history and our belonging(s). As stolen people on a stolen land, our fight to document our past is a practice of repair and healing. And sometimes, a practice of joy. It’s how we know what is ours to keep, what to let go of and how to affirm the rich beauty of our interior lives.
These conversations left me thoughtful, and basking in gentle reminders that I am never alone, that I am responsible for contributing to a better world and that I deserve to be free.